Learn One Lift that will Improve Power, Sports Performance and Strength in Athletes
*(NOTE: In an effort to provide the highest quality information, this post was updated on May 13th, 2013. I have learned a lot in the last 11 months and found it necessary to update this post to reflect my current understanding of how to power clean correctly.
On some points my thinking changed just slightly, but enough that it should be noted, and in other cases I was dead wrong. The good thing is that in my application of some of these new concepts and ideas my lifts have never been better.)
Training for power is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of becoming a better athlete. Athletes that want to get faster, get stronger, and get bigger need to train to improve their power. Fortunately many programs include the power clean for just that purpose. Unfortunately though, a lot of people do it incorrectly, get injured, or don’t get any good at the lift and don’t get to reap the benefits.
So whether you are an athlete or a coach of an athlete this post is for you. I have taken everything that I know about the power clean and put it to paper (or cyberspace) for your enjoyment and education.
This is a step by step guide to help your athletes get better, stop missing lifts, and see all the benefits of one of my favorite lifts. Before I get to all the technical stuff, why should athletes do the power clean in the first place?
Power Clean Benefits
In terms of pure power output very little athletes can do in the weightroom compares to the power clean. The power output of a power clean dwarfs movements like the bench press, squat and deadlift by three fold.
Improve sports performance
Increasing speed and strength are the fastest ways to get better on the field. By training with loads at high velocities the clean is the best tool to simultaneously train both qualities. Many of the most important tasks in sports rely on well-timed sequential movements. The timing of the power clean mimics many of those movements, and shares movement qualities like explosive hip extension. This improved timing is great to improve sports performance.
I haven’t run into many people that are legitimately strong in the power clean that aren’t also strong squatters, deadlifters, and many times, even bench pressers. The power clean is a great total body movement that develops type II muscle fibers unlike much of the rest of the weightroom. If an athlete has the strength to get in positions for the power clean they will have the strength to move serious weight around in the rest of the weightroom.
How to power clean—The start position
Cover the shoe laces
Establishing the right distance between your body and the bar is essential to completing the power clean correctly. Too close and the bar will need to move forward off the floor, creating a bad pulling position, too far and the bar will need to move back, and once again the athlete will be in the wrong position. Setting up with the bar covering the the last shoelace as the athlete sees it from above, establishes a great position to begin with. The bar should be placed over the forefoot. This position allows the athlete to get in a quad dominant position at the ground level, where the knees will be shifted forward
For athletes that are taller this may need to be adjusted slightly forward and shorter athletes may adjust slightly closer to the bar, but at least we have a frame of reference from which to start. From the coaches point of view this looks like a bar position that is in the midfoot of the athlete.
Flat Feet (but weight at the ball of the foot)
The athletes balance of weight will mirror the position of the bar over the foot. This is the case for the entire lift. While the bar is on the floor it will be centered over the base of the big toe (and the athletes own weight will be towards the ball of the foot). As the lift progresses the bar should move into the body (more on that later) during that portion of the lift the weight will dynamically move back towards the heel.
Remember this is a dynamic system, and the athlete’s weight will reflect this dynamic system.
Jump width feet
The vertical jump is used as the indicator of lower body power when we are testing athletes. The foot position that athletes naturally use when jumping is likely going to be the one that they will want to begin the power clean. With the feet around hip width apart athletes will be able to direct force into the ground in the most efficient way possible. Setting up too wide directs much of the force outward and not into the ground. Athletes that have hip mobility restrictions may need to adjust their stance wider than jump width to achieve a safe position from the ground.
Seriously Brace the core
A strong core is necessary to maintain the torso position from the ground up through the first and second pull. The only way to ensure that this happens is to pre-brace the core before the lift begins. Once oriented to the bar establish the brace position while standing which will be much easier to do than trying to establish the brace while in the starting position. It is important to have this feeling established before having your hands on the bar.
RDL to the Knees
Finally we can begin moving towards the bar! Right now from the standing position athletes have 3 choices that they can make to get your hands to the bar and only 1 of them is correct.
1)Athletes could choose to bend their knees to move their hands lower to the ground, but eventually they will run out of ankle mobility.
2) Athletes could also choose to bend their back to make their way to the bar, but in this case athletes will be putting some crazy stress on their lumbar spine once loaded.
3)Lastly athletes can hip hinge, their way towards the bar. (BINGO! This is what we want)
The first movement that needs to be made is an RDL or hip hinge movement. By completing this movement athletes will be creating a hip loaded pattern that allows for a powerful hip extension later in the movement. Only hinge until the hands are at the kneecaps, and remember if the athlete’s hips quit moving back in space while making this movement they are no longer in a hip hinge.
Squat to the bar
To finish the descent to the bar athletes will need to cease moving their hips back in space. Athletes will need to move towards the bar by squatting or moving their hips down in space. The athlete will be able to maintain the same relationship to the bar on the X axis, but will gain the knee bend necessary to start the bar off the ground. The deeper the squat to the bar the better. Hopefully we can establish a position where their is little space between the hamstrings and the calves, remember off the floor we are looking to be very quad dominant.
Using the cue “squat to the bar” is a great way to relate this “foreign” position to something that most athletes are very familiar.
Eyes Forward Neck Straight
Once the hands meet the bar a neutral spine posture must be assumed. Cervical hyperextension, which will likely contribute to greater lumbar hyperextension. With greater lumbar hyperextension the athlete will put more shearing force on their lower back.
That all being said, there is much contention to the idea that a neutral neck be used. Many elite weightlifters use a head position that would be considered cervical hyperextension, and there is even literature suggesting that in this position, the greater tension that is found in the lower back actually aids the lifters.
We are not likely coaching elite weightlifters destined for Olympic greatness, in the interest of lumbar spines everywhere, positioning the neck in a neutral position is the right call for most athletes (don’t fret too much over this)
Lock the lats down, and core tight
On the neutral spine idea, we have to think of ways to brace the core. Typical bracing will do well, but including the cue to lock down the lats will aid in the stiffening of the core, and will also allow the athlete to keep the bar close to the body at the moment of lift-off. Keeping the bar close to the body will assist the athlete in maintaining a tight lifter-barbell system.
Arms straight Down
In an effort to maintain a tight lifter-barbell system and the bar close to the body a “knuckles down” cue will lead to a the shoulders being directly over the bar. The arms will be straight while the bar is on the ground. For some athletes it is easy to keep the arms straight through thinking of relaxation at the elbows, while for others it is important to teach that the elbows remain “locked” when on the floor.
Knees out is a new cue for me, but one that is helping my athletes tremendously. Externally rotating the thighs in the start position creates a higher level or torque and sets athletes for the transition of the bar around the knee. Push the knees into the elbows, create torque, make more power later.
Once more thing on the knees. To ensure the right torso position make sure that the knees are forward of the elbows. This creates the right angle we are looking for when the bar breaks the ground.
The Hook Grip
There are two ways to grasp the bar in the power clean. The first is the simple grip in which the athlete grabs the bar with an overhand grip and thumbs wrapped around the bar. This grip will not be sufficient to lift heavier weights. It is necessary then to use the hook grip to pick up some serious weight. The only reasons a simple grip should be employed is in the case of a thumb injury or some other lack of mobility in the thumb.
The hook grip is actually pretty simple to complete. The athlete should grasp the bar overhand like normal and before wrapping their fingers closed, should place their thumb inside of their grip. Simple.
There will be some discomfort in maintaining this grip for novice athletes but this will subside over time. (Note: Don’t trim your thumbnails too short before using the hook grip, pain will ensue).
The width of the grip in the power clean will be shoulder width or slightly wider. While many people employ certain lines on the bar to determine where to place the hands, not all athletes are able to use high end bars to do the movements. It is necessary to have a way to make sure athletes are able to grasp any bar with the correct grip no matter the markings.
From a standing position the athlete should be able to grip the bar in a position that allows for their thumbs to be extended straight and be in contact with their hips/upper thigh. This width is sufficiently wide enough to achieve a strong racked position, allow for the possibility of a jerk later on, and is not dependent on the markings of a bar.
How to Power Clean- The Start
The static start looks just as you would expect it to look, motionless. Once the athlete has achieved the start position described above they remain motionless for up to several seconds and then begin their initial lift off. This method is great for beginners because there is no variation to the start position once it is initially achieved. The downside to using a static start position is a reduction in power from the floor and many athletes find the start position to be relatively uncomfortable to maintain for long periods of time.
There are actually several ways to complete a dynamic start but each of them aims to develop acceleration of the torso before lifting the barbell from the ground.
Rocking can be thought of as a “less dynamic, dynamic start” The athlete will start with the pelvis higher than the bar and begin movement of the torso to the appropriate angle to begin the lift off. This movement is smooth and the torso will shift from a horizontal relationship to the platform to a more vertical relationship. Once in the vertical torso position the athlete will begin a transition to their lift off position, once that position is achieved the lift off will begin
The pumping start can begin with 1 or 2 pumps but is the “more dynamic, dynamic start”. The athlete will start with hips higher than the bar, quickly drop the hips to the appropriate start position, and execute the lift off. A second pump can occur by bringing the hips up 1 more time and then down again to the bar. (down-up, down-up). Be careful in this very dynamic start to not let the athlete’s weight shift forward to the toes.
How to power clean—the performance
The First Pull
The first pull is the initial movement from the ground and until the bar passes the knees. This pull is usually slower and more controlled than the second pull. The primary goal is to maintain good position while gaining momentum through the early part of the lift
“Push The Floor”
My old thinking in the power clean was more along the lines of pushing through the heels. This works, I promise, but I have found a better way to get from the ground to the knee level. If you establish a good quad dominant position with the bar over the ball of your foot, all you will need to do is “push against the floor,” or “push with the legs.” With a strong torso your knees will move back and the bar will get on the elevator to awesome.
Knees Back, Translate the torso
The initial lift off from the floor should be done by extension of the knees. Driving the knees back while lifting the torso is what we are aiming for. The torso should remain in the same relationship to the ground (30 degrees above horizontal) throughout the first pull. In this way we are looking to translate the position of the torso vertically through space. This will maintain the powerful hips loaded position above the knee. The knees should continue driving back until almost reaching extension as the bar begins to pass the knee.
Bar sweeps back
Up to this point we have spoken much about the position and movement of the body in the power clean. The bar however does make a slight movement off the floor back toward the body to maintain the tight lifter-barbell system. This occurs due to the activation of the lats, we are not looking for a straight line pull, but rather one that resembles a very flat S.
Slow off the floor (if you’re a beginner)
A beginner that rockets the bar off the ground will miss positions the entire way up the lift, for this reason we incorporate lifts with pauses throughout the learning process.
Once an athlete knows the positions and can consistently hit them, they are likely able to pull much more weight. When an athlete can pull some significant weight the intent will become pulling the bar from the ground as fast and hard as possible.
Looking at the best lifters in the world, you will likely see them pulling in what looks like a slow manner, but I can guarantee that they are pulling as hard as possible they just have to overcome inertia, and that can be a hard task.
At the knees
Once the bar is at the knees several things should be occurring. This is a difficult place to coach the athlete, because the system is already in motion but changes may need to be made after reviewing the lifts on video.
The feet should be flat so the athlete can transition correctly for the second pull. The hips should still be higher than the knees, and very little hip extension has occurred. The torso should still be roughly 30 degrees above the horizontal. The arms should also remain straight at this point, athletes that have bent their arms by this point will have difficulty with completing the second pull.
The second pull
The second pull is more aggressive in nature and the point at which the athlete will accelerate the bar to its highest speeds, this pull lasts from above the knee (after the transition period) and until the athlete reaches full hip extension.
Creating the triangle
A really important concept that I like to teach my athletes is that once in the above knee position they have created a “power triangle”. This triangle consists of their entire arm, their torso, and the angle of their hips. From this point on the only goal, and the only way to make a successful second pull is to flatten, or close the triangle. This is a vivid image that can help athletes hit the correct positions.
Knees Forward (Scoop/Double Knee Bend)
A lot is made about the knee bend during the second pull. Articles have been written about the double knee bend, that would make this post look like small potatoes.
The fact is, in a good power clean the knee bend will occur to align the body in a position to create vertical movement, pure hip extension from the above knee position will create too much horizontal projection and the athlete will jump forward.
Here are the facts:
- When the bar is at the knee level, the knees are nearly extended.
- When the bar is in the final pulling position the knees need to be under, or even in front of, the bar to create vertical movement and pull from the strongest position.
It is necessary to perform the double knee bend (or scoop, or transition) for vertical projection.
To get a picture of the right final pulling position think about how you would lift a washing machine. Would you stick your butt out and get your chest over it to lift it? Or would you try to get a pretty vertical torso, dig your heels in the ground and push down with your feet?
I would suppose it would be the second option, and by no coincidence this position is the exact position we want to reach to finish our pull.
Finish the hips and knees
Once the bar has reached a high thigh position, and the torso has come to vertical, the hips and knees will both be nearly extended. At this point the athlete should finish driving the hips and knees to extension. Athletes will drive up through the toes in this phase and will achieve FULL extension. This is the highest speed portion of the entire lift.
What about the elbows and the shrug?
Don’t worry about the elbows yet. There is no need for a high pull. Once the hips and knees have extended, yanking upwards with the hands is unnecessary, and will not make the bar go any faster.
In both the case of a shrug and the elbows we often think about frame by frame shots of elite weightlifters seemingly pulling the elbows up and shrugging the shoulders. The fact is very few of these lifters are thinking of doing those things.
Instead this position is a result of an effort to move UNDER the bar, not in an effort to move the bar any higher.
Punch the elbows (still no high pull)
The arms have stayed relaxed to a great degree up to this point, but once the athlete has started to move under the bar it is time to use the arms forcefully. The action of the arms at this phase is best described as punching the elbows up.
The elbow punch will result in a receiving position that is high on the shoulders, meaning that the weight will not be resting on the wrists (generally a weak point) but instead will be in line with their center of gravity. An effort to flip the wrists will usually lead to a low catch on the chest and a need for the athlete to “roll” the bar up the chest.
Instead think of getting the hands to the shoulders quickly and punching the elbows up.
On the internet, where people get mad about everything and start internet fights. This is one topic where they will start a lot of fights. Should the athlete jump?
While the lift will definitely improve jumping performance it is not exactly like a jump, but still that does not answer the question.
Here’s where I stand. For most athletes jumping actually improves the catch position and here’s why: When an athlete leaves the ground, their ability to pull up on the bar is done. Any effort put into the bar will make the athlete move under the bar when the feet are off the ground.
This doesn’t mean pull the feet up really high and stomp the ground and this doesn’t mean you should mimic a jump and leap from the ground. It just means a short impulse of power to leave the ground.
Hips Back, Feet Flat
This step will occur simultaneously to punching the elbows. Athletes should aim to receive in an athletic position just as they would land from a jump (only on their heels first in this instance).
The athlete will widen their feet slightly, from a hip width/jump width stance to a shoulder width/squat width stance to receive the bar. The athlete should also have very little forward or backward travel at the time they receive the bar.
Power Clean Variations
Variations in the power clean are made by changing up the start position and the receiving position. Different variations can train different qualities and are very valuable to any athletes.
Variations in starting position
Hang Power Clean
The power clean from the hang position is a great teaching tool to use with athletes and can even be used as your primary way to train athletes with the clean. The clean from the hang position will help athletes develop better ability to use the stretch shortening cycle.
We have two positions in which we do hang cleans most of the time.
Hang power clean from hip
This movement is to mimic the final pulling position. The one where the knees are re-positioned under the bar, and the torso is vertical. This position has become the first position in which we teach athletes to clean.
Establishing that this foreign position is the ultimate goal, is important to making your athletes successful with the lifts.
Hang power clean from knees
Our second position from which we do the hang power clean is at the knee level. We use 2 primary variations of this variation (all very confusing).
Above Knee: This position is the one from which our athletes complete most of their power clean reps. It is an athletic and familiar, and athletes have plenty of success with it.
Below knee: Our Olympic lifters do many of their reps from this position. Typically the transition around the knee is difficult for lifters and making them lift from below the knee means we make better lifters.
Clean from Blocks
The clean from the blocks is a great way to teach athletes to learn the lifts. This position allows you the ability to physically put your athletes in the right alignment for starting from any position (hip, above knee, below knee). This is a great teaching tool for beginners as well as a great way to learn different portions of the lift that athletes may struggle with (transition around knee).
Variations in receiving position
The split clean is a blast from the past, it was employed by many athletes as the primary way to complete the movement in competition for a number of years. For athletes the split clean should be used as a way to provide variation to the program and to accustom athletes to absorbing force in a “single leg” stance. After full extension is reached the athlete should punch the lead knee up and drive the rear foot back and to the ground. Ideally the athlete will land with a vertical shin on the front leg, similar to the 90-90 position employed in split squats
It takes a special athlete to be able to complete a good looking full (squat) clean, many athletes will lack the mobility to get in the correct positions to receive the bar. The world’s most explosive athletes use this technique to complete the clean in competition, so the upside in terms of potential weight used is great. The full clean is an even greater total body exercise because of the need for great leg strength to come up from the full front squat position.
Common Power Clean flaws and Coaching Cues
The bar drifts away at the start
At the moment of lift off the bar and lifter should be closely linked, a bar that drifts away early on the floor is likely an issue that can be fixed by making a modification to the start position. Coach your athletes to keep the bar tight by locking down the lats and locking in the core arms vertical
Check to make sure that the athlete is not forward of the bar at the start position, no horizontal backs around here.
The bar moves around the knees
The bar moving around the knees is a very common problem that can really inhibit the athlete’s ability to make a great second pull, with two likely causes.
The most likely cause of this problem is the weight of the athlete not shifting from the forefoot towards the heel as the bar makes its way up the body. Push the ground and sweep the bar, the knees will get out of the way.
The athlete racks the bar with elbows down
This is a very common issue and can be caused by several things.
1) The athlete is pulling with arms flexed. When pulling with the elbows flexed the athlete will slow down their ability to punch their elbows around the bar.
2) The athlete is not completing their second pull. If the athlete does not complete the second pull their chest will likely remain over the bar and this will not allow for enough time to punch the elbows through and necessitate that they receive the bar with their elbows down
3) The athlete lacks lat mobility to receive the bar correctly. Athletes that lack the requisite mobility to receive the bar will not be physically able to rotate their around to the correct receiving position. Including more lat mobility work, and thoracic extension training in the warm-up period will be a good long term fix for this sort of problem.
The athlete jumps forward when catching the bar
Jumping forward when receiving the bar is a classic sign that there was incomplete extension of the hips during the second pull. When the hips don’t fully extend the bar will begin to drift forward and the only way that the athlete can complete the lift is to jump forward to the bar.
A second likely cause not re-positioning the knees under the bar as the bar moves up the thigh. If the hips come from too far a horizontal distance to reach hip extension the bar will be “bumped” forward and the athlete will need to jump forward to catch the bar.
The athlete jumps back when catching the bar
Lets first say that some coaches do teach a movement backwards at the catch, while their reasons may vary it is likely that they feel this promotes a full hip extension. Traveling back to receive the bar is likely caused by directing their momentum back rather than vertical in the completion of the second pull. Cue the athlete to move their head vertically toward the ceiling and not throw it back while completing the pull.
The athlete jumps feet out when catching the bar
Ahhh the starfish. I am not a fan. Athletes that jump their feet out are looking to get to the finish position the fastest way that their body knows how. This problem can lead to really awkward and dangerous receiving positions and needs to be eliminated quickly. The easiest way to do so is to create a visual stimulus that will reinforce the correct technique. A murray cross will do well to give athletes immediate feedback as to whether they received the bar in the appropriate position or not.
The cause of the starfish is mind blowing to some people, but I am going to lay it on you straight. Athletes that overpull the bar, meaning they pull too long with their arms will ALWAYS catch in a starfish.
Once the hips and knees are extended, just get under the dang bar. Sit, don’t sprawl.
Accessory lifts to fix your power clean
The clean pull is a partial lift that will have the athlete finish in complete hip extension and arms straight but not rack the bar. The clean pull can be done from any of the start positions (floor, hang, blocks) and is a great tool to develop positional power for the power clean. For increasing power as it pertains to the power clean only, the clean pull should be done at 110% of the (X)RM where X is the number of reps the athlete is doing in that particular set.
If an athlete can clean 100 kg for 3 reps they should clean pull 110 kg for 3 reps.
If an athlete can clean 120 kg for 5 reps they should clean pull 132 kg for 5 reps.
The starting position that is used in the clean pull should be determined by what it is that the athlete needs to work on the most. If their pull off the floor is jacked up then they should pull from the floor, if they have issues in the second pull then use clean pulls from a hang or block.
Some awesome work has been done recently to show that the clean pull (sometimes called a jump shrug) can actually produce higher levels of power output than the traditional Olympic lifts, because of this and the lack of impact on the body (no receiving position) the clean pull is a great lift to use for in-season training.
The execution of a clean pull is debated, but for my athletes I do not want them to finish with a violent shrug of the shoulders or over-emphasize finishing on their toes.
Last thing on clean pulls, in Olympic lifting, heavy clean grip deadlifts, and snatch grip deadlifts are pulls too.
Even though we are talking about the power clean and not the full clean the front squat is an absolute must to improve power clean ability. At the moment of impact (the catch) there is great force that is being exerted downward, being able to stand up with it and not get buried requires a strong front squat. Athletes that seemingly are able to pull the bar to heights that would allow for a good rack position but still miss the lift at the rack can benefit from front squats and even front squats against bands to get super strong in the top position of the power clean.
If the front squat helps the ability to receive a power clean the RDL assists the athlete’s ability to make an efficient pull on the bar. Greater hamstring and glute strength is an awesome thing to have when the going gets tough around the knee and before the second pull kicks off.
I used to use the RDL as a big time teaching tool, but instead we use a modified version of the RDL to teach the transition from the knee level to the hip level. (I learned this awesome drill after Coach Glenn Pendlay made me do it for about 20 minutes straight!)
Clean lift off
For athletes that struggle off the floor but not many other places the clean lift off is a great tool to use. Have athletes set up in their start position at the floor level and begin to extend the knees until the bar rises to knee height. Pause for a moment and bring the bar back to the ground under control. This movement will groove the pattern off the floor like no other.
Power clean accessories
My opinion on straps in the clean has changed dramatically, but it comes down to one singular “rule”
If the use of straps inhibits the athlete’s ability to catch the bar in the rack position, do not use straps. If it doesn’t inhibit that position, feel free to use straps.
Personally, I never use straps in the clean, but always use straps in the snatch.
Using a weightlifting belt in the power clean is a mixed bag to me. I would never recommend a belt to someone that already has poor technique because the belt will magically grant confidence (like it always does) to go heavier than the athlete should. If an athlete has great technique and can pull with a neutral spine off the floor, a belt is unnecessary even at higher weights.
Again, personally, I love using a belt in the clean, but not in the snatch. I like the ability to breathe into the belt to create an even stiffer core position.
Shoes for power cleans
Running shoes would be one of my least favorite choices for footwear during a power clean. These shoes typically have a pretty thick soft-rubber sole that can allow power to leach out during the pull. The high sole will also lead to less stability while lifting and at the receiving position.
Minimalist shoes have definitely gained popularity recently and some are even being marketed as “training” shoes. You definitely need to take a look at some of these as they are not all created equal. Some are great and provide a solid base of support, and some are just well marketed running shoes with the same pitfalls.
There really is no better shoe than a weightlifting shoe for performing the power clean. The solid wood sole and wider base helps keep the athlete on balance throughout the lift. There are several brands for sale on the market today (adidas, Nike, Reebok) and some lesser known brands. I have purchased every single kind that you can (seriously I have 6 pairs) and go to my adidas over others.
Power Clean Programs
Get Right Power Clean Program
For many athletes technical proficiency is the limiting factor, even advanced athletes can benefit from increased repetition of the lifts. To add the get right program to an existing program (one that includes strength work in the rest of the week) and improve the athlete’s technical abilities try this out 1-2 days per week.
Loading should be 60% of Bodyweight +/- 10-15 kg
Begin with Imitation movements with the bar for up to 20 reps.
Power Clean Variation (Hang, Split, blocks) wk 1: 4×5 wk 2: 5×5 wk 3: 4×5 wk 4: None
Power Clean wk 1: 4×3, wk 2: 5×3, wk 3: 6×2, wk 4: Test 1RM
Clean Pull wk 1: 4×5, wk 2: 4×5 +10 kg, wk 3: 5×5, wk 4: None
So we are finally to the end, nearly everything I know about one of my favorite lifts, the power clean has been put out into the interwebz. This post was awesome to write and I really hope that it will help improve your athlete’s power clean. If it does in fact help you or your athletes, please do me a favor…
Wil Fleming Gives you the 5 Factors that your High School Athletes NEED to Dominate to Succeed
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